A few weeks ago, a woman who identified herself as a registered nurse in Toronto tweeted a photo of people on the subway with her at 7:30 a.m. She covered their faces with emojis and wrote, “We need @TorontoPolice patrolling the TTC. Only essential workers should be out. @JohnTory way too many people.”
The woman later deleted the photo, and her account, after many people pointed out that she had no way of knowing whether or not the people on the TTC were essential workers and that it’s unlikely anyone would be riding the subway early in the morning for fun in the middle of a pandemic.
Her instinct to tag the police and Toronto’s mayor speaks to a wider snitching and shaming culture that emerged from this public health crisis. From venting about “covidiots” online, to deeming anyone not wearing a mask a “narcissistic swine,” to posing as cops to ask drivers if they’re essential workers, COVID-19 seems to have brought out the inner narc in many of us.
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And the actual authorities are encouraging this behaviour, creating snitch lines to help people report neighbours and friends who aren’t isolating after travelling or following physical distancing protocols.
But should we be snitching on people around us for seemingly not following the rules? Does it actually help slow the spread of COVID-19?
First, let’s look into why snitching is on the rise.
Canada, like many other countries around the world, passed a bunch of new regulations in a very short time frame to attempt to flatten the curve of the coronavirus. A 14-day quarantine for people who enter the country is now mandatory. Most provinces have banned gatherings larger than five people and closed down all non-essential businesses. Municipalities are passing their own rules regarding public spaces. In Toronto, for example, it’s now illegal to be less than 2 metres from someone from a different household in a park.
In the early days of physical distancing, it seemed a lot of people were still gathering in parks and beaches; photos of these gatherings went viral and sparked anger. Afterwards, some guidelines became hard rules, and various levels of governments opened up snitch lines to report non-compliance, essentially asking citizens to surveil each other and act as an extension of the state.
Lorian Hardcastle, an assistant professor specializing in health law and policy at the University of Calgary, said the reality is there are always going to be people who don’t follow rules.
She said if you see an egregious example, like someone hosting a party with 30 people, or neighbours returning from a coronavirus hot zone who aren’t isolating, it may be worth alerting the authorities.
“They actually are a significant risk to the community,” she said.
But in general, she said the problem with snitching is you don’t know people’s motivations or circumstances. You may think that a group of people hanging out aren’t related, but they could be roommates. Other times, someone might do something that’s not recommended—like going to a cottage—but it’s not illegal, so there’s nothing to tattle.
Part of the desire to snitch boils down to resentment, Hardcastle said.
“People are irritated with the level of hardships they’ve had to endure,” she said. “They sometimes will jump to conclusions about what and why other people are doing and maybe will get unreasonably annoyed with it when it actually is fine.”
Clinical psychologist Taslim Alani-Verjee, said there’s a couple things happening with the snitching phenomenon. People view the coronavirus as a real threat, and when they see other people not physical distancing, they worry that the threat is increasing.
But snitching and shaming also provides a sense of control, she said.
“Something that happens when people feel as though they have no control over a situation is they assign blame,” she said. “It makes them feel like the world is predictable.”
She said people also want “justice” when they see people engaging in activities that they aren’t.
According to Alani-Verjee, snitching and shaming aren’t effective ways of changing other people’s behaviour and can even cause resistance.
She said there’s a divide between people who are living and working at home pretty comfortably and people who may not have an ideal home situation and need to get out for fresh air and movement. If those people are shamed for leaving the house, they'll end up feeling alienated.
“You feel like you’re doing something wrong,” she said. “There is no way to exist well in this community.”
There’s also concern about racialized people and homeless people being unfairly targeted by snitching and law enforcement. Black people in Toronto are 20 times more likely to be shot dead by police than whites; Black people in Brampton and Mississauga are three times more likely to be subject to street checks, the Toronto Star has found.
“What we end up seeing a lot of the time is racialized folks are just assumed to be guilty or doing wrong even when they’re not,” Alani-Verjee said.
Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said the group has received more than 100 complaints related to bylaw officers and cops not exercising discretion surrounding COVID-19 rules.
“Peace officers should be engaging in public education dispersing people and giving warnings but only charging and ticketing people as a measure of last resort,” he said. “We’re seeing the opposite of that.”
Bryant said we don’t know how many people are carrying COVID-19 so we can’t say that these measures are warranted.
Alani-Verjee said ultimately, stressing about what other people are doing is unhelpful and unproductive. People are allowed to make their own decisions, and those decisions aren’t ours to understand, she said.
She recommended talking to people in your life if you have concerns, and promoting people’s wellbeing and safety as a way of motivating them to follow physical distancing.
“Supporting each other and remembering that we’re all in this together is probably the best way to get through this effectively.”
Verdict: If someone is clearly putting others at risk, try having a conversation with them before snitching. Reporting them to an authority should be a last resort. In general, it’s a waste of emotional energy to get worked up over what everyone else is doing and it’s not an effective way of changing behaviour.
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